The cat the 'Cats copied

Posted: March 04, 2014

THE EFFECTS of Allen Iverson's career and carriage cannot be overstated. He influenced not only a league but a culture; braided, tatted and 'tuded; valiant, defiant, unapologetic.

The 76ers retired Iverson's No. 3 on Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center in a stirring ceremony that offered a respite from the catastrophe they have created this season.

Yesterday afternoon, Villanova dismantled Marquette on the court under which Iverson's number now hangs. If the Wildcats weren't aware that Big East nemesis Creighton lost Saturday night, putting Villanova atop the conference, it was because they were watching A.I.'s love-in.

Like him or not, the ascension of Iverson from Hampton Roads phenom to international icon is felt in every facet of American society; from the playgrounds of D.C. and New York and Philly to that arboreal campus in Villanova.

"If it wasn't for Allen Iverson, I wouldn't have picked up a basketball," said Wildcats guard Tony Chennault. "He was a trend-setter."

Chennault, a North Philly native and the 2009-10 Daily News Player of the Year out of Neumann-Goretti, was raised in far different circumstances than his current teammate, sophomore Ryan Arcidiacono, a star at Neshaminy High who grew up in Langhorne.

Still, they shared inspiration.

"He was my favorite player growing up," Arcidiacono said. "I always admired how he played. The way he played, is kind of how I grew up playing: watching him dive all over the place, being a smaller guy."

It is still the way Arcidiacono plays.

The whole Villanova team plays that way, really. It is why, more than any other reason, the 'Cats are 26-3 and poised to steal a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Of course, while the Sixers orchestrated around Iverson, the Wildcats go nine deep, seven of whom might lead them in scoring in any given game. Yesterday, it was junior swingman Darrun Hilliard, who dropped a career-high 26 points in the shadow of No. 3.

Hilliard's previous career best was 25, also accomplished in The House That Allen Built.

"Last night I saw A.I. get his number retired, so that was pretty cool," Hilliard said. "That was my favorite player. Seeing him go out and be the smallest guy on the court and doing what he did, with everything against him, that's something I looked up to. It's pretty cool to be in this building."

Hilliard idolized the Answer. He attended Sixers playoff games against the Pacers in 2000 and the Lakers in 2001, and even visited the locker room once as part of a promotional event.

Hilliard always played as Iverson in NBA Live on PlayStation, and, like Arcidiacono, he coveted Iverson's shoes, the latest model from Reebok.

"I had all those shoes. The Answer. The Question," said Arcidiacono . . . who knew, regardless of footwear, he was no Bubba Chuck. "His crossover is just ridiculous. I'll try a crossover, but only, like, in the summertime."

Neither was as close to Iverson as Chennault. He was lucky enough to play on Iverson's AAU team, the Reebok Raiders, an experience that changed his outlook on life.

"It gave me the opportunity to know the world was bigger than Philly. Going all over the country. To LA. To Ohio," Chennault said.

Everywhere he went, Chennault realized the impact Iverson was having, and why.

"He was a young, inner-city kid who was rebellious. Did it his way. He didn't let the world tell him what was right," Chennault said. "Sometimes, society gets scared of things like that."

Usually, what scares a society attracts its young.

"He was huge for the culture. A lot of other guys just followed the norms," Chennault said. "He carried himself in a way that wasn't the norm."

Yes, Chennault is only 22, but life has seasoned him. His elder brother was killed in June 2012, just before Chennault transferred home from Wake Forest to be with his ailing mother, who then died 15 months later.

On the court, he went from starting in Winston-Salem to subbing in Villanova.

He might be a better man for all of it; and, like many young men of his generation, he considers Iverson an admirable example of toughness and perseverance.

Chennault smiles when he wonders how far he might have gone with his admiration if his hair wasn't too wild and tight for braids, and if he wasn't terrified of needles.

"But, you know, I didn't have to get tattoos or cornrows to respect him, or to understand where he was coming from, or what he went through to get where he's at," Chennault said.

Yesterday, Chennault's most significant play came when set up Hilliard with a crucial three-pointer near the end of the first half that squelched Marquette's last decent push. Chennault would play only 6 minutes more. He finished with five points, and he has not cracked double-digits this season. He is a senior.

Still, he endures:

"One of Allen's favorite quotes was, 'Only the strong survive.' Where I'm from, not too many get out and get this opportunity to play college basketball," Chennault said. "I've always told myself, 'You have to be strong to survive in this world.' Not just in basketball.

"Without him, I probably wouldn't be here."


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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